Divided by the Danube River, the Hungarian capital of Budapest -- known as the "Pearl of the Danube"-- is a city of two distinct halves.
The hilly Buda side is topped by the impressive Royal Palace, home to several museums and charming cobbled streets lined with shops and houses that date to medieval times. On the busier Pest bank, there are grand sights like the parliament building, opera house and statue-lined Heroes' Square, plus fantastic shopping streets, such as Andrassy Avenue, Budapest's grand central boulevard.
Several bridges cross the river, but the best one to use is the historic Chain Bridge, which is the oldest. The great thing about Budapest, a mainstay on most Danube River cruise itineraries, is it's compact, so you can pack plenty into a short break. The majority of sights are within walking distance or easily reached on the efficient tram and underground network.
Coffee shops are a big thing. At one time, there were more than 400 in Budapest, so take time out to join locals for a caffeine boost and a slice of yummy cream cake. Budapest is also the world's only capital city to boast more than 80 active thermal springs and wells; soaking in the warm, mineral-rich waters is an authentic experience. Szechenyi is the largest, with indoor and outdoor pools, and Gellert is famous for its opulent -- and mostly original -- architecture. Many river cruise operators offer trips to the baths as an excursion option.
Budapest's history dates to the third century, when Celtic warriors occupied the area. Study the place a bit, and you'll find yourself wondering: Who didn't invade the city? The Romans, Magyars, Mongols, Ottoman Turks, Austrians, Germans and Soviets have all played starring roles in Budapest's longstanding municipal drama. The city has been destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries -- part of the reason for its eclectic architecture, which includes everything from neo-Classical to Stalinist utilitarian. Its current skyline reflects the building programs and styles of the turn of the 20th century. As Claudio Magris wrote in his travel memoir, "Danube," "Budapest is the loveliest city on the Danube. It has a crafty way of being its own stage-set."
Ships dock on both sides of the Danube, right in the center of town, which means a good many of Budapest's highlights are walkable from the riverbanks.
If you're moored on the Buda side, you are closest to the Castle District, and you can follow a zig-zag path up to the top or take the for-fee funicular, which is the fun (and easy) way to get there. Or stroll along the bank to the ornate Gellert Baths, one of the city's thermal spas, which are open to the public. From moorings on the Buda bank, you need to walk across the nearest bridge -- usually the Chain Bridge -- to reach the attractions of Pest.
The Pest side is closest to the upscale shops of Andrassy Avenue, the parliament and St. Stephen's Basilica, and there are plenty of cafes and restaurants with outside terraces lining the waterfront. Also nearby is the Tourist Information Center in Deak Square.
Budapest is generally safe, particularly in the main tourist areas, but as you would in any large city, beware of pickpockets, and keep your belongings safe. Avoid unmarked taxis or those with only a taxi sign on the roof, as these will be unlicensed, and drivers can rip off tourists. Do not buy vouchers for Szechenyi thermal baths from street hawkers; they will be fake.
On Foot: One of the best things about Budapest is that it is walkable, with a compact city center. Many of the main sights are within a 20-minute walk of the docking area. Biking is also a great option, as Budapest has well-marked bike lanes both in the city and along the Danube River.
By Metro: The Budapest underground system is a tourist attraction in its own right. Built between 1894 and 1896, the M1 or yellow line was the second in the world after London and still has some original tile work. The M1 line is near ground level, and there are no elevators -- just a short flight of stairs to each station. Three lines serve all the major tourist destinations. The Metro is clean, safe and fast, with regular services running every two to 10 minutes. Individual tickets or books of tickets are available from manned booths at each station (denoted by large M signs). Tickets are also valid for use on trams and buses (although the latter is more complicated to work out and not advised when the Metro and tram system are much easier). Validate your ticket in the orange boxes at Metro entrances before travel, as inspectors carry out spot checks and fine passengers who do not have correctly stamped tickets. Maps of the lines are available from tourist offices and hotels. Signs above the track show the direction of travel, but if you go the wrong way, simply get out at the next stop and cross over to the other side.
By Tram: If you have a map, it's also relatively easy to get around on the city's extensive tram network and enjoy a spot of sightseeing as the trams rattle through the streets. Tickets are available from coin-operated machines next to the stops and must be purchased before travel. The machines don't dispense change. They must be validated on another machine. One of the most scenic routes is number 2, which runs along the side of the Danube. Routes 47 and 49 are the two main lines connecting Buda with Pest.
Tip: Buy a Budapest Card from the Tourist Information Office. Available for 24 hours to 72 hours, they provide free public transport; a hop-on, hop-off sightseeing tour; and discounted admission to selected museums and attractions.
By Taxi: Budapest's licensed taxis are bright yellow and easy to spot. They have a set tariff, and fares are show on the sides of the doors. It's worth noting the telephone number, as ordering a cab by phone is cheaper than hailing one in the street, albeit fares are still relatively inexpensive in comparison with those in other European cities. Firms include Fototaxi, which is also the official transport partner of Budapest Airport. (+36 1 222 2222)
Hungary joined the European Union in 2004 but has not adopted the euro. The currency is the Hungarian forint, denominated in coins and notes. Check online for the latest exchange rates.
ATMs, readily available throughout the city, tend to be the least expensive way to obtain local currency. Generally, banks are open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. As in any city, there are currency exchange offices that charge a commission. Many souvenir shops and street stalls accept euros, but check first and expect to get any change in forints. All major credit cards are accepted at larger, tourist-friendly shops. Carry cash for cabs and smaller retailers.
The official language Hungarian. It's a tough language to master, and it has more links with Finnish than the languages spoken in the countries that surround it. But a few basic words go a long way: "Hi" is szia (si-ah). "Excuse me" is bocsanat (bo-chaa-naht). "Good morning" is jo reggelt (yoh regh-ghelt). English is widely spoken in hotels, shops, restaurants and all the major tourist attractions. The youth in Hungary are likely to speak English, but many older residents don't.
Impress locals by pronouncing Budapest the "right way", with the "pest" part pronounced "pesht."
Influenced by neighboring and former occupying nations such as Turkey, Austria and Serbia, Hungary has tasty national cuisine, much of it seasoned with paprika, which appears on restaurant tables beside the salt and pepper. There are many kinds of paprika, varying in color, aroma and, most importantly, taste -- ranging from sweet to extremely hot. Among the country's signature dishes are goulash, a thick beef soup cooked with onions, potatoes and carrots; fisherman's soup, a mixture of boiled fish, tomatoes, green peppers and paprika; chicken paprika; grilled freshwater fish; and fried or grilled goose liver.
Most meals begin with soup, including a surprisingly good sour cherry soup served in summer months. Always leave room for dessert, often pancakes served with a delicious chocolate rum sauce. Hungary's grape-growing tradition goes back hundreds of years, so don't miss the chance to try some robust red Bull's Blood wine or the lighter, sweeter white Tokaji. Credit cards are widely accepted in restaurants. As for tipping, it's customary to tip your waiter 10 percent, but be sure to check the bill first, as sometimes the tip is included. It's OK to tip in U.S. dollars or euros.
High Note Sky Bar: One of the hippest spots in town, this trendy bar atop the Aria Hotel has incredible city views along with delicious and innovative drinks and bites. The hotel is located next door to St. Stephen's Basillica, so you can see the church's spires from the rooftop perch. You'll find ample seating -- some open air and some in climate-controlled rooms, where roofs can be opened to let in fresh air. Time it right, and it's a great spot to catch the sun set. While you're visiting, spend some time touring the music-inspired hotel, which also features a ground-floor bar dedicated to Louis Armstrong and a gourmet restaurant. (Hercegprimas Utca 5; +36 20 438 8648; open daily from noon to midnight.)
Ruszwurm: Technically a cake shop, this quaint and atmospheric cafe opened in in Buda's Castle District in 1827 and is one of the oldest in the city. As it's so small, it can be hard to get a table, but the wait is really worthwhile, and it's a lovely place to stop off for a light(ish!) lunchtime snack. The cakes and pastries are sublime; the hardest part is deciding which one to have. (Szentharomsag Utca 7; +36 1 375 5284; open daily from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.)
Gerbeaud: Long the centerpiece of Budapest's cafe society, Gerbeaud is more than a sweet shop -- it's a Hungarian cultural institution. Known for its coffee and torte cakes, the cafe has classic high ceilings with crystal chandeliers, polished wood and marble, and thick curtains. Little has changed since it opened 150 years ago. Situated on Pest's Vorosmarty Square, the neoclassical building also houses the Onyx, a microbrewery and gourmet restaurant. (Vorosmarty Ter 7-8; +36 1 429 9000; open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.)
Gundel: For elegant dining, Gundel lives up to its reputation. The award-winning restaurant, open under its current name since 1910, is located in a late 19th-century palace in City Park, just a two-minute walk from Heroes' Square. Gundel, with its innovative menu, is known -- and deservedly so -- for creating new spins on traditional classics. It can be a little formal, as in the evening men must wear jackets, but the Sunday lunch buffet is less so. (Gundel Karoly Utca 4; +36 1 889 8111; open from noon to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, noon to midnight Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday; Sunday brunch is served from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.)
Karpatia Etterem: A local favorite for special outings, Karpatia Etterem, with its medieval interiors, will remind visitors of Matthias Church. Situated in the courtyard of a former monastery, the restaurant specializes in traditional Hungarian cuisine, accompanied by traditional gypsy music. It also offers Mediterranean, Asian and Latin American fare. The restaurant is more formal and romantic, while the casual brasserie near the Pest side of Elizabeth Bridge offers lunch and snacks in addition to a dinner menu. (Ferenciek Ter 7-8; +36 1 317 3596; open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.)
Ruin Bars: Not simply one location, ruin bars collectively encompass a number of trendy bars found throughout Budapest. These bars stared in the early 2000s, when buyers purchased derelict buildings with a mind toward turning them into bars. To save money, proprietors filled them with mismatched, second-hand furniture and random pieces that serve as art. Over the years, they've become hip watering holes, where patrons gather among the clutter and sip drinks like beer and palinka, a grappa-like liqueur guaranteed to set fire to your stomach. During the day, ruin bars are relatively peaceful, with people lingering over newspapers while quietly chatting. At night, some heat up, with bright lights and DJs. Visit the first ruin bar, Szimpla Kert, or funky Csendes -- which features creepy vintage toys nailed to the walls -- or any of the dozens of ruin bars you can find throughout the Pest side of the city.
Vaci Utca is a pedestrian shopping street filled with gift shops, galleries, jewelers and boutiques. It's also home to some larger retail big-box stores, like H&M or MAC. Also not to miss is the Great Market Hall, or Nagycsarnok, a covered market near Liberty Bridge on Vamhaz Korut, on the riverside end of Vaci Utca. It's in an unmistakable building that looks like a railroad station with a distinctive yellow, green and red tiled roof.
The second floor, selling inexpensive embroidery, folk art, dolls and other souvenirs, has become a magnet for tourists, but to savor the real atmosphere, spend time on the ground floor. Hungarians love salami, and the meat counters are draped with every conceivable variety in all shapes and sizes. Another excellent souvenir or gift is dried paprika in a pretty pottery jar. It's extensively used in Hungarian cooking.
During the holiday season, some riverboat operators offer special festive market cruises, and you'll find an outdoor Christmas market in Vorosmarty Square, just off Vaci Utca.